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Richard Milanovich Dies at 69

Richard Milanovich, a longtime chairman of Riverside County's Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians and a leader in the effort to legalize and grow the state's tribal gaming industry, died Sunday. He was 69.

Mr. Milanovich led the Agua Caliente tribe for more than three decades, during a time when tribal members moved from poverty to casino-fostered wealth. Mr. Milanovich became one of the most powerful people in California politics, negotiating - and sometimes clashing - with governors and legislative leaders while overseeing tens of millions of dollars in campaign spending that resonated as far away as Washington.
Mr. Milanovich had battled cancer and other ailments in recent years, friends and associates said. He nevertheless continued to have a positive outlook, they said.
"Because of him, thousands of California Indians live a better life than they ever would have had," Michael Lombardi, a member of the Augustine Band of Cahuilla Indians, near Coachella, said Sunday. "His leadership, his wisdom, his vision is going to be missed. He cannot be replaced."


The Agua Caliente tribe operates two casinos in the Coachella Valley, in Palm Springs and Rancho Mirage. They are among the most successful casinos in the state. Riverside County Supervisor John Benoit said he got to know Mr. Milanovich soon after his assignment as chief of the California Highway Patrol station in the Coachella Valley.
Mr. Milanovich, Benoit said, was an intelligent, genuine leader who was a keen negotiator determined to get the most for his constituents.
"And that meant for all of the people in the valley, not just the tribe," Benoit said Sunday. "He represented all of the people. He was very fair. He made sure his constituents got the very best benefit that they could."
Rep. Mary Bono Mack, R- Palm Springs, called Mr. Milanovich "a treasured friend" and a "great national leader."
"Richard brought his personal ethic - hard work and self-reliance - to every single thing he tackled," Bono Mack said in a statement. "But most importantly, Richard brought humility, sincerity and compassion to his job."
Tribal leaders from around Inland Southern California praised Mr. Milanovich on Sunday. "In his more than 30 years in tribal government, Chairman Milanovich led with humility, wisdom and sincerity, and was guided by a passionate commitment to cultural preservation, education, and the self-sufficiency of Native Americans," Robert Martin, chairman of the Morongo Band of Mission Indians near Banning, said in a statement.
Mark Macarro, chairman of the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians near Temecula, said Mr. Milanovich's death "will leave an irreplaceable hole for all tribes as well as his people."


Mr. Milanovich was an early proponent of allowing California tribes to have Las Vegas-style gaming on tribal lands. Then-Gov. Pete Wilson, as well as many lawmakers, opposed the effort throughout the 1990s.
In 1998, the Agua Caliente tribe and other tribes bankrolled Prop. 5, which legalized gambling on state lands. The measure passed, but courts later ruled it unconstitutional.
In 1999, tribal leaders tried again, negotiating casino pacts with then-Gov. Gray Davis. Voters' approval of Prop. 1A in 2000 put the pacts in place. The affable Milanovich's willingness to fight continued throughout the decade, with foes including then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, organized labor and others.
In 2004, at Schwarzenegger's peak of popularity, Mr. Milanovich tried to bypass the governor and win voter approval of an initiative to allow tribes to expand their casinos. Schwarzenegger attacked the initiative, claiming that "the Indians are ripping us off." The governor also spoke out against a Milanovichbacked local measure in Palm Springs. The state initiative, Prop. 70, lost overwhelmingly.


Mr. Milanovich and Schwarzenegger, a fellow Republican, later reconciled and negotiated a casino-expansion deal, one of several in 2006. The end of that year's legislative session featured an intense Capitol battle beopposed the agreements, and Mr. Milanovich and other tribal leaders. Voters ultimately approved the measures in 2008, after another big-bucks battle. From 2000 through 2009, the Agua Caliente tribe spent $49 million on campaigns and lobbying, tenth-most in the state, according to a 2010 report by the state Fair Political Practices Commission.
Sometimes the tribe's attempts to influence the political process backfired. In 2006, Mr. Milanovich tearfully apologized to other tribal leaders for the tribe's hiring firms connected to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
"Richard Milanovich was for real. He was an icon," said tribal lobbyist Jerome Encinas, who called Mr. Milanovich "one of the founding fathers of Indian gaming in California."
Sunday, Benoit said he saw Mr. Milanovich in January, when they went out to dinner with their wives. He knew then that it would probably be the last time he would see the tribal chairman.
After their meal, he hugged Mr. Milanovich. "I don't hug a lot of my male acquaintances," Benoit said. "But Richard Milanovich was a special guy." Mr. Milanovich is survived by his wife, Melissa, and six children.
The Press Enterprise
By: Jim Miller and Davis Keck